I spent hours combing my papers for typos and grammatical errors, attempting to earn a perfect score (which I never did, by the way) rather than pushing myself to experiment with words and explore ideas that made me uncomfortable. My “joy” came from getting the grade I wanted, not from growing in my craft. But it wasn’t really joy at all. I was and continue to be a frustrated creative, scared to show anyone my work for fear of criticism.
I know I’m not the only person who struggles with this. I’ve taught more students than I can count who prefer to receive a zero on a paper than to write one that might not receive 100%. In their minds, failing without having tried is better than trying and not meeting their expectations.
But this obsession with perfectionism stretches far beyond the classroom.
Recently, I attended a small workshop on improving job interview performance. One woman couldn’t answer a single example interview question during the four-hour seminar. Despite our collective attempts to encourage her, she couldn’t speak more than four or five words before stopping to apologize and say, “I’ve already messed up so much. There’s no point in continuing.”
Eventually, she stopped trying altogether.
Christian creatives often carry the double burden of both secular and spiritual perfectionism, usually inspired by a misinterpretation of Matthew 5:48 which says, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (ESV).
The misinterpretation comes from believing perfect to mean “excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement; entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings; accurate, exact, or correct in every detail” (Dictionary.com). According to that line of thinking, why even try to produce a creative work when we know it won’t meet those flawless expectations?
We’ve missed the point.
According to the Pulpit Commentary at Biblehub.com, perfect as used in Matthew 5:48 “denotes those who have attained the full development of innate powers, in contrast to those who are still in the undeveloped state—adults in contrast to children. Thus, the thought here is—Ye shall be satisfied with…no lower state than that of maturity.”
Jesus is encouraging his followers to learn and mature, just as a baby eventually grows into an adult. No Christian is expected to have everything figured out immediately. Instead, growth is expected over time, and it’s interesting to note no prescribed time is given.
No sane parent expects a baby to walk or talk within days of birth. No wise parent of teenagers expects them to have life figured out as well at 16 as they will at 32. Instead, most parents find their joy (and admittedly frustration) in being part of their children’s journey to adulthood.
Why are we so understanding of emerging physical and emotional maturity while disregarding creative maturity—something that must develop over time and only by trial—and dare I say it—error?
After all, we serve a God who chose to create the world in six days (when He could have done it faster) and who appears to relish the creative journey of helping us become the people He intended us to be. The apostle Paul wrote that we should be “confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6, NKJV). If God views our growth and maturity as an on-going process, why can’t we?
Recently I came across several stories I wrote in college. As I read them, I recognized that even at age 18 I had a good grasp of grammar, a decent wit, and a better-than-average understanding of how to put a sentence together. However, my over-40-year-old self chuckled at the ideas my 18-year-old self expressed about how the world worked. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me when I say I was clueless.
I know so much more about human nature now than I did twenty years ago. But it took me twenty years to learn it—and I’m still learning.
I’m learning how to let go of my compulsive need to be error-free.
I’m learning to push myself past my comfortable limits.
I’m learning to make mistakes and grow from them.
I was born to create. So were you. It’s time to let go of perfectionism and embrace the journey—however long it might be and however many errors it might involve—to creative and Christian maturity.